Courts

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Worried it's Too Late to Send in Your Ballot? Don't Panic

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2020 at 11:56 AM

FILE
  • File

Less than a week before Election Day and anxiety over the postal service’s ability to ferry voters’ ballots to county election administrators on time has ratcheted up yet again.

Back in May, the United States Postal Service’s top lawyer advised voters across the country to put their ballots in the mail no later than 7 days before Election Day “to account for delivery standards and to allow for contingencies.”

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling effectively barring election administrators in Wisconsin from counting mail-in ballots that are postmarked before the polls close but which don’t arrive until after Election Day. Democrats and liberal court watchers were particularly alarmed by the opinion penned by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which seemed to reflect the justice’s ambivalence about the practice of accepting ballots after the polls close. “States want to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election,” Kavanaugh wrote. It’s almost as if he were writing about California.

But election administrators and legal experts have a message for voters here: 

Breathe.

First, about that warning from the postal service: California is different.

This summer, state legislators passed a law giving any ballot postmarked before the polls close up to 17 days to wend its way from a voter’s mailbox to county administrators. The law was meant to ensure that even the most catastrophic of postal snafus wouldn’t disenfranchise mail-in voters.

The Postal Service’s warning is “what you get when other agencies try to do your job for you,” said Santa Cruz County Registrar Gail Pellerin. With California’s 17-day window for incoming ballots, voting by mail ought to be a safe option at least until the coming weekend, she said. If voters want to be extra cautious, they can take their ballot directly into a post office: “Walk it in and get it postmarked.” Or deposit it in a county-managed drop box or at a vote center.

(For more information on voting in Humboldt County, including where to find a drop box or vote center, click here. Want to check the status of your ballot? Click here. According to the state, 33,230 of Humboldt’s mail-in ballots have been accepted by the Elections Office as of Oct. 26. A total of 86,385 were sent out.)

Second, about that Kavanaugh opinion: again, California is different.

As UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen wrote in the Washington Post, the linchpin of Kavanaugh’s opinion wasn’t his antipathy to counting ballots after November 3. It was an argument about judicial overreach and which branch and level of government has the power to set election rules.

Here’s the chain of events that led up to this opinion: Wisconsin state law, passed by its legislature, requires all ballots to be in by the end of Election Day. In September, a federal judge ruled that, in light of the pandemic, counties should ease up those restrictions and allow otherwise valid ballots to be counted six days after the fact. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling.

From Kavanaugh’s opinion:

“Assessing the complicated tradeoffs involved in changing or retaining election deadlines…is primarily the responsibility of state legislatures and falls outside the competence of federal courts.”

That reading of the constitution, Hasen writes, gives state legislatures “almost absolute power to set the manner for conducting presidential and congressional elections.”

Fortunately for fans of California’s 17-day election rule, it was penned by the Legislature. In an email, Hasen said that he does not “anticipate any issues along this line” in California.

Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail. North Coast Journal digital editor Kimberly Wear contributed to this report.
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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Replacing Cash Bail: Fairer Justice or Robopocalypse?

Posted By on Sun, Oct 25, 2020 at 12:53 PM

The Bail Boys bail bonds displays a "No on Prop 25" poster in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 21, 2020. Prop. 25 would end California's current cash bail system and replace it with a three tier risk assessment system. - PHOTO BY TASH KIMMELL FOR CALMATTERS.
  • Photo by Tash Kimmell for CalMatters.
  • The Bail Boys bail bonds displays a "No on Prop 25" poster in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 21, 2020. Prop. 25 would end California's current cash bail system and replace it with a three tier risk assessment system.

California is either about to right decades of inequality between rich and poor defendants by eliminating cash bail, or it’s about to turn over its justice system to robots.

The question of what to do about the system that decides whether people should be free while awaiting trial will be determined by Proposition 25. The stakes, as explained by each side, are either ending an unjust system or relinquishing judicial authority to a pretrial assessment tool run on an algorithm.

If passed, Prop. 25 would allow each of California’s 58 counties to choose its own algorithm to assess a person’s flight risk or likelihood of reoffending while awaiting trial. The algorithm makes a recommendation, but the decision falls to the judge.

Yet those algorithms meant to solve for human bias have come under scrutiny in recent years, with some early boosters pulling back support. Those new dissenters worry the computer programs currently available will be overly broad in interpreting risk and unnecessarily keep throngs of defendants, many of them poor and minorities, behind bars.

Cash bail as an industry dominated by commercial bail bondsmen only exists in the U.S. and the Philippines. Some states have begun to turn away from cash bail either relying on national algorithms or, like Virginia and Florida, created their own.

In 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to eliminate cash bail, replacing it with a new pretrial risk assessment similar to federal courts. But the years since SB 10 have been difficult for supporters of bail determination algorithms. First, a group of 27 academics from institutions like MIT and Harvard pulled their support, citing the danger of using inexact and overly broad definitions in predicting violence.

Their principle objection was the way the algorithms defined risk. “When tools conflate the likelihood of arrest for any reason with risk of violence, a large number of people will be labeled a threat to public safety without sufficient justification,” the group wrote.

Then this year, an even bigger setback for algorithm advocates: The Pretrial Justice Institute, long the standard-bearer for a risk-based algorithmic approach, announced it no longer supported using algorithms in determining someone’s eligibility for pretrial release.

“We were too focused on fighting the damaging status quo to really listen,” PRI wrote in a mea culpa in February. “We made a mistake.”

Supporters of Prop. 25 argue that inequities created or exacerbated by the algorithm can be worked out during the periodic reassessments of the program — Prop. 25, if passed, would get its own review by Jan. 1, 2024 — and that other such algorithms are in use in other states, with no grave consequences yet reported.

There are five popular algorithms in use today, in states from Kentucky to New Jersey, along with several California counties that have already eliminated cash bail.



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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Protestor Hit at Breonna Taylor Demonstration in Eureka

Posted By on Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 7:56 PM

A demonstrator injured by a vehicle on the intersection of 5th and I Streets in Eureka has their injury evaluated. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • A demonstrator injured by a vehicle on the intersection of 5th and I Streets in Eureka has their injury evaluated.
About 200 demonstrators gathered at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Thursday, calling for justice for Breonna Taylor as part of a nationwide protest one day after a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, brought no charges against police officers involved in her March 13 fatal shooting while serving a no-knock warrant at emergency medical technician’s home.

One officer was charged with wanton endangerment for shooting into a nearby home.

Demonstrators in Eureka marched down Fourth and Fifth streets, many calling out "Breonna Taylor," "Black Lives Matter" and "say her name" before blocking Fifth Street in front of the courthouse for a time.

At least one demonstrator was reported to be hit and injured by a truck around 7:40 p.m. and an ambulance was responding.
The death of Taylor, who was 26, at the hands of police is among many whose names have been invoked during months of Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S.
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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Second Suspect Reportedly Arrested in Tripp Homicide

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2020 at 11:15 AM

Julius "Jules" Tripp
  • Julius "Jules" Tripp
It appears another suspect has been arrested for the July 20 killing of Julius "Jules" Tripp near Hoopa.

According to Humboldt County jail records, Daniel Armendariz was booked into the facility at 2:35 a.m. yesterday on suspicion of murder. Sheriff's Office spokesperson Samantha Karges responded to a Journal inquiry about the arrest, saying it "looks like he was taken into custody at court for the Julius Tripp case." For additional information, she referred the Journal to the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office, which has not yet responded to a follow up inquiry.

A Humboldt County Superior Court Judge ruled yesterday after a multi-day preliminary hearing that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to hold 18-year-old Bronson Moon Lewis Jr. to stand trial on charges he murdered Tripp. According to a report in the Lost Coast Outpost, a pair of witnesses testified that Bronson and a man named "Daniel" got into an altercation with Tripp after bumping his car alongside State Route 96.

According to the report, one testified that Lewis and "Daniel" got out of their truck, with "Daniel carrying a large knife that he handed to Lewis." She said the two men chased Tripp has he ran away and she later heard screams, after which Lewis said he'd cut off Tripp's hand. She said the two men then left the scene to get a rifle, saying they had to kill Tripp because he'd seen their faces. Having retrieved a firearm, she said they returned to the scene, where she heard "one or two" gunshots before Lewis and Daniel returned to the truck, both "shaking."

"Daniel" was not called as a witness during the hearing, according to the report.

Read the Lost Coast Outpost's full coverage of Lewis' preliminary hearing here, the Times-Standard's here and we'll update this post with more information as we can.
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Sunday, September 6, 2020

County Settles with Counsel for $600K

Posted By on Sun, Sep 6, 2020 at 3:59 PM

Jeff Blanck
  • Jeff Blanck
The county of Humboldt and its long-on-leave counsel have parted ways but Jeff Blanck is not leaving empty-handed after the two parties agreed to a $600,000 settlement, according to reports by the Lost Coast Outpost and the Times-Standard.

Read those stories here and here.

Blanck was placed on administrative leave by the board of supervisors in March of 2019, after four years on the job. Read more about his tenure and claims against the county here, here and here.
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Monday, August 24, 2020

Driver in Near Miss Incident with Demonstrators to Face Charges, LoCO reports

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2020 at 3:46 PM

A driver who was videotaped coming close to hitting pedestrians and people on horseback on Central Avenue in McKinleyville during a June 11 Black Lives Matter march will face charges, Lost Coast Outpost reports.

The incident was investigated by the California Highway Patrol. Find the story here.
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Monday, August 3, 2020

“Pervasive Failure to Investigate:” Report Finds Lack of Scrutiny in Cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2020 at 4:55 PM

2018 Women's March San Francisco attendees raise fists and hold signs in support of missing and murdered indigenous women. - PHOTO BY PAX AHIMSA GETHEN VIA CREATIVE COMMONS (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • 2018 Women's March San Francisco attendees raise fists and hold signs in support of missing and murdered indigenous women.

For generations, order and cleanliness had been Christina Lastra’s family’s way of fighting off poverty. But the day in July 1991 when her mother’s mysterious death was ruled an accident marked the end of the orderly life Lastra had been leading in Humboldt County.

“We didn’t get peace. No one ever even thought of looking further into the death of a Native woman, of my mom,” said Lastra, who identifies as Indigenous and Chicana. “Until now.”

A new report by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a data-driven nonprofit based in Humboldt, details for the first time the lack of scrutiny and data surrounding the cases of 105 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across northern California, from the Bay Area to the Oregon border. Using state and federal data, other research, police reports and community-based information, the institute found more than 2,300 cases in the United States.

Of the California cases classified as murders, law enforcement solved 9 percent, researchers found. The statewide clearance rate is more than 60 percent in the past decade, according to the state Department of Justice, meaning that murders of Indigenous women in northern California were about seven times less likely to be solved than homicides involving all other victims.

“Women after women, disappearing,” said Annita Lucchesi, the executive director of SBI and a Cheyenne descendant. “It creates a sense of hopelessness. It makes it feel like this is a world that we can’t live in anymore.”

The cases documented in the institute’s report span over a century, but 72 percent occurred after 2000, and problems collecting data on crimes against Native American women suggest the actual number is much higher — around 1,700 statewide since 1900, according to researchers who extrapolated from existing data.  

California is home to 700,000 Indigenous people, the largest Native American population in the country, but there is no reliable data on missing Native women in the state, according to Lucchesi, who said more than half of the cases in the state were not in official missing persons databases. When records were available, the report found, Native women were often misclassified as white, or their deaths were labeled accidental even when family and friends thought otherwise. Much about the cases remains unknown because of difficulties in data collection and a “chronic and pervasive failure to investigate,” the report said.

Almost a year after she learned her mother, Alicia Lara, had died in a car accident, Lastra said she reached out to the county coroner. She had heard that someone from Weitchpec, where her mother was found, had seen her shortly before her death, badly beaten up. That’s when she learned that her mother’s body had been found in the passenger seat of her car.

“If they’d just ask around, I think people in Weitchpec knew that she didn’t have an accident,” Lastra said. “But she wasn’t important enough to open an investigation.”

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, who has headed the department since 2013, said the case report for Lastra’s mother didn’t strike him as particularly suspicious. But he said he did have trouble understanding how Lara had gotten in the passenger seat. “It’s hard to see how this could’ve happened,” Honsal said. No investigation was opened.

“There may have been things that have happened in the past, things that didn’t go well, where communication didn’t happen,” Honsal said. “We’re learning from past mistakes, trying not to repeat that in the future.”

Lastra’s perception that local police didn’t put enough effort into her mother’s case isn’t unique. Lucchesi said the report found deep mistrust toward law enforcement among Indigenous women.

Policing in tribal areas is tricky. Jurisdiction is shared with the tribes, who have police forces with limited powers, and communication between county and tribal departments has historically been limited, something many tribes would like to remedy, according to Abby Abinanti, chief judge for the Yurok Tribal Court and a co-author of the report.

The lack of resources experienced by some northern California police departments, combined with the sheer size of territory officers have to patrol, adds to the difficulty of investigating cases, the report found, a problem echoed by sheriffs across the region. High poverty rates, which according to the 2018 American Community Survey bordered 40 percent for the Yurok and Hoopa Tribes, two of the largest tribes in the state, also make it hard for victims to advocate for their family members and for tribes to build efficient police forces.

Last fall, in recognition of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Justice Department launched Operation Lady Justice, to combat violence and human trafficking of Native Americans. State Assemblyman James Ramos, a Democrat from San Bernardino County, is pushing for a bill that would establish a task force to study the disappearances and provide financial assistance to law enforcement and tribal governments.

In the meantime, Indigenous women are leading the effort to investigate. “I want to find those bodies,” said Abinanti, who was the first Native American woman to pass the state bar. “And then, prosecution is at the bottom of the list, but it’s on the list.”

But the main priority remains for victims’ families to find closure.

“We’re treated like we don’t count, but you know what?” Lastra said. “My mother counted and I am her legacy and I count. This report makes me feel like she is finally being honored.”

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Friday, July 31, 2020

Court Bans “Abusive” Spiking, but Sticks with Pension Protections

Posted By on Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 10:51 AM

California Supreme Court justices in San Francisco pre-COVID-19. - COURTESY OF JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF CALIFORNIA
  • Courtesy of Judicial Council of California
  • California Supreme Court justices in San Francisco pre-COVID-19.
For 65 years, the California Supreme Court has taken a rigid line on pensions for public employees: Any retirement benefits promised to a worker at the outset of a job can only be reduced if they are replaced with something of equal value.

That iron-clad precedent has been dubbed “the California Rule.” Today the state’s high court carved a little wiggle room into that rule. In a case filed by the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, the court found that the county was within its rights to exclude certain forms of bonus pay and overtime when determining the future pension calculations of current employees.

Pension hawks have long derided “pension spiking” — artificially boosting retirement benefits by evoking sick leave or running up overtime just before retirement — as abusive. The court agreed.

But the Supreme Court stopped short of out-and-out nixing the California Rule. In the 90-page opinion written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the court found that “closing loopholes and preventing abuse of the pension system” was consistent with state law that otherwise makes it exceedingly difficult to renege on promised pension benefits for future work.

All seven justices agreed with that logic, with Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar writing his own concurring opinion. The ruling may come at a fortuitous time for public pensions, which amid ever-growing liabilities to current and future retirees are likely to see dismal investment returns during the current catastrophic economic slowdown.

“Public services are being cut across California, some jurisdictions have already announced layoffs and furloughs of public employees, and many counties and cities are struggling to pay for their pension liabilities,” the governor’s lawyer Rei Onishi argued in May.

The decision avoids a dramatic conclusion on either side of the widely watched issue. The central conflict in the case was between the court’s long-standing precedent and a 2012 law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown called the Public Employee Pension Reform Act.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Judge Instructs County, Blanck to Talk Settlement, T-S reports

Posted By on Wed, Jul 15, 2020 at 5:49 PM

news2-cropped.jpg
County counsel Jeffrey Blanck and the county of Humboldt have been told to find a way to settle their differences by a federal judge, who also blocked the board of supervisors from meeting to consider the status of his employment, the Times-Standard reports.

According to the story, Blanck — who filed legal action against the county, other administrators and an outside attorney and law firm after he was placed on paid administrative leave back in March of 2019 — says he still has not been informed about any specific charges allegedly filed against him regarding his conduct on the job.

Another court hearing has been set for July 23.

Read the full story here.
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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Attorney: Nelson's Character Led to His Release After Blue Lake Murder Arrest

Posted By on Thu, Jul 9, 2020 at 5:56 PM

Mark Anthony Nelson Jr. looks on as his attorney reads a statement on his behalf. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Mark Anthony Nelson Jr. looks on as his attorney reads a statement on his behalf.


Mark Anthony Nelson Jr. — a 39-year-old gas station clerk from Eureka — has had quite a week.

A man came to rob the gas station where he worked.

He shot and killed that man, prompting his arrest on suspicion of murder, possessing stolen property and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. He was booked into Humboldt County Correctional facility without bail, and quarantined there for five days.


Then yesterday, in a stunning reversal, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s decided no charges would be filed in the case. Nelson walked free, and joined his partner Cynthia Shelton and their 14-year-old daughter for a quiet night at home.

“We are just chilling,” Shelton wrote on Facebook.

Although Nelson won’t be granting interviews, local defense attorney Russell Clanton spoke on his behalf today.

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